Number eight in the series of Flash Fiction challenges.
H is for Herne
Many, if not all, nations have a ‘huntsman’ figure in their mythology. Hunting was a vital skill for survival in early peoples, and so it’s not surprising that legends and stories grew up around it.
The British version focuses on Herne the Hunter. Curiously, he’s a particularly local mythical figure, limited in scope to the Great Park at Windsor. Indeed, the first written mention of him (by no less than Shakespeare) has him constrained to haunting a single oak tree. It’s unclear whether Shakespeare invented this figure, or whether he was building on an existing myth.
Some believe he’s inspired by a historical man called Horne, a poacher during the time of Henry VIII. Others feel he is an incarnation of the ‘hunter’ myth who had the good fortune to be named by a playwright whose works survive to this day. In any case, his legend has continued to grow over the years. Originally he just rattled chains and turned milk sour, now he predicts major disasters and deaths.
Since the eighteenth century, he has been the figure who leads the Wild Hunt. This began life as a Germanic tale, where the hunt was led by Wotan, the local form of the name Odin. He’s also been co-opted by modern media, appearing alongside Robin Hood and Hellboy, to name but two.
H is for Herne
It all started with the rattle of chains. She would have assumed a farmer was out harrowing, but for two things. First, she didn’t hear a tractor. Second, it was three in the morning. No sensible person would be out that early, working in the moonlight.
The next night a horse whinnied. The only time horses stayed in the park overnight was right before a polo match, and she knew there wasn’t one of those any time soon. She wouldn’t have been there otherwise.
Distant hoofbeats broke the silence of the third night. She couldn’t quite place where they sounded from before they faded into nothing. The faint cry of a horn startled her, before she told herself it was a distant truck, or perhaps a train.
The following night, the hoofbeats came closer. She stopped carrying her shotgun slung across her back and started holding it instead.
That final night, she kept the gun and her ears cocked. An owl hooted in a tree, some small rodent rustled through the grass, and then with a swish and a squeak, all fell silent again. Then the sound of distant hooves started. Louder and louder they grew; the ground trembled beneath her feet and rattled her bones. Shouts and jeers were all around her, screams of joy (or terror?). She was in the middle of a stampede, but there was nothing there. She risked lighting her torch, shone it all around — wherever she aimed it, the noise ceased, only to intensify behind her. Shaking hands dropped the light, aimed her shotgun into the night and…
That’s all they found the next morning. A loaded shotgun, and a torch flickering on the last of its battery. They say you can still hear her screams on quiet, moonlit nights, as the hunt pursues its quarry.
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